The Ocean Clock Corporation started with a single eponymous product. Sold as a gentler alarm clock, the ocean clock was marketed as a curiosity, a gift for the dad who has everything, an embellishment to replace the default in the common stock of household electronics. Like other white noise alarm clocks, it could be set to slowly wake its sleeping owner with progressively louder sounds of waves. The clever addition that set it apart was the built-in atomizer, which puffed a fragrance that smelled exactly like sun-warmed seawater. A fan spread this mist around the room, mimicking a breeze and completing the effect.
As an alarm, the ocean clock was perfectly useless. It replicated the feeling of being at the ocean so successfully that people claimed they could feel coastal sun on their sleeping faces. Rather than get out of bed, most users tended to let it go on playing, sleeping in until 10am or even noon, convinced they were on vacation far away from the responsibilities they'd intended to get out of bed for. The clock was quickly rebranded as a sleep aid.
Following its initial success, the corporation's offerings expanded to include other cliches of the aromatics and white noise industries, such as the autumn woods and spring meadow. But these were very different from previous attempts. They were not perfumey, nor too loud. The soundtracks were controlled digitally - not just recorded tracks that looped the same sequence of sounds, but intelligent time-sensitive algorithms capable of creating completely new combinations each time they were played. To own one of these devices was, as far as the senses of hearing and smell were concerned, as good as being there.
Demand skyrocketed, and soon the applicances were as common as television sets. Every American family owned one, and the wealthy often had one for every room in the house. Tired investment bankers would come home at midnight to an ocean clock set to behave as though it were 7pm. They could sit in the living rooms of fiftieth story apartments looking out at the undeterred lights of the unsleeping city, squint, and pretend all the flashes of electric light were waves catching the moon. Many young professionals, born to the lower class and trying to rise above, never got to leave the city. They worked eighty-hour weeks and their free time was spent in nearly catatonic exhaustion. For these especially, the ocean clocks represented salvation.
Diana's father had inherited the company from her grandfather, and she from him. Her late grandfather had trained her to appreciate stimuli, taught her where to find them, and how to differentiate between the emotionally compelling and the merely stinky/noisy. As a little girl, she'd spent hours in his workshop, lectured on the many subtleties of a family business that was all about subtlety. The man had possessed an uncommon knack for capturing moments via sound and smell. His projects included such unmarketable sensations as the front-lines of a battlefield and a farm dying of drought. He was not a dark man, though. He'd explained all this to Diana.
"This is humanity, sweetie. A fantasy will not fool the mind unless it incorporates all aspects of an experience - even those that, alone, would be negative. You know what sells ocean clocks? Rotting kelp. Fish oil. On a real beach, people would run if there were too much of either on the air. But a touch of those scents is a piece of the experience. It makes the thing real. This set of pieces on war, they make you sad now, but you're not old enough to comprehend them. You need a sense of patriotism, sacrifice, to understand the beauty in tragedy. These are for adults."
Now Diana sat in the dim room she'd considered opening to the public as a museum, holding the battlefield appliance. She'd listened to all of them before, but each time she was reduced to weeping. The wartime clock built up pride and fear. The battle petrified her. Then she played the victory and felt catharsis. Relief washed over her, but she cried for the terrible waste of lives represented by the composite soldiers on the virtual battlefield, and the real people in forgotten centuries who'd died believing in something.
Ocean Clock Corp. still did shockingly well. They had no serious competitors - no one could match the authenticity of their products. She took a lot of pride in her family secret. Her parents had been wizards with this technology. They shared a rare talent for listening and paying attention. They'd perfected series of new products capturing not only nature, but human experiences, adding a social element to the locations Diana's grandfather had been able to conjure. The timing had been perfect. While they were running the company, drug-resistant viral mutations had made leaving home dangerous to the point that many people simply stopped. An ocean clock replicating a pub allowed shut-ins with weak immune systems to maintain their sanity.
Diana fretted from time to time about passing on her training. She'd married a man with an exceptional talent for technology. He improved the basic design of the clocks, making them both more powerful and more durable. Some of the simpler ones were capable of regenerating their scent vaults, making them ideal for lower class families who had difficulty keeping up their replenishment subscriptions. But Steve had no ability, innate or adopted, to observe the world. As a technologist he was visionary. As a human being, he was blind. They had two children. Each took after him.
This terrified Diana, just as it isolated her. Everyone she knew owned at least one ocean clock, but she didnt know a single person who'd be capable of making one. She took trips away from the city into places abandoned to the elements, she knew no one visited there. There were rumors of feral humans living out beyond the cities, but she'd never even seen these.
She loved a man once who'd seen the ocean. She was young and didn't know how rare that was. When her husband handed her a prototype with hugely incorrect scent ratios or random noise seeds so small the result was seizure-inducing, she often wished she'd thought to marry that old flame before he slipped away.
The primary stress in Diana's life was her failure to create anything new. She'd made brilliant variations on the themes her parents and grandfather had worked with, but the effect they had was the same. They didn't challenge their users. And she worried that each experience she replicated was one that disappeared from the world soon after, like catching a butterfly. She was far from burned out. She'd traveled the world, often having to forge her own path into places that had been empty for a century. Her journeys, increasingly, only inspired one thing.
Diana's homage to her grandfather's war series was a set of clocks that played ghost towns. She'd climbed ruins to get close enough to record the sound of rain on exposed church bells and picked up samples of hundreds of kinds of dust. Although each was different, these all evoked exactly the same feeling, half doom, half a crazy and smug fatalism. She kept them to herself, wishing she could go back in time and record the life those towns would have swelled with once. Wishing her grandfather had thought of it.
She was leaving on one of her increasingly fruitless trips when she found her inspiration. She turned from the shadow of her all-terrain vehicle and went back into the lobby of her building, and in a fever fell to work.
When the city clock was released, it was snapped up as quickly as all the other ocean clocks. There were collectors who had one of each, but ocean clocks sold at a rate of about 100,000 per day. Consumers new to owning the appliances, in particular, had no ability to differentiate between the sensations they produced. Anything labeled "new" automatically sold out by virtue of being marketed more strongly.
Many of the city clocks were sent back. Only the oldest customers seemed shocked, people in general being used to buying faulty products and having no recourse. Of course Ocean Clock Corp. was one of only a handful of companies that refused to do business this way, and so the city clocks were replaced with something more traditional. Among those who recognized that they were not malfunctioning, reactions to the city clock were highly polarized.
In the most isolated demographic of users, people who hadn't seen another human being in perhaps two decades, there were a number of suicides. These weren't connected to the city clock until well after the fact, so it remained on the market and more stable users were able to give it a good listen. Its sounds were of distant sirens, occasional echoing screams, periodic brushes of tires across pavement. The constant background was the eerie ringing of the wind bending the tall skyscrapers, of metal singing. It was almost odorless. Every scent it played was so quick and faint that if you didn't breathe in precisely when it was released, you would certainly miss it. Expensive perfume, sweat, trash, gasoline, ozone.
Most people needed to play the city clock only once after listening to any other ocean clock to grasp its meaning, and were almost universally overtaken by grief. Even those who did not take their own lives were tempted to stay in bed for days at a time after the experience, listening to the familiar ocean again but inconsolable. The city saw the most foot traffic it had witnessed in decades as people stepped out of their home offices to verify for themselves the first Ocean Clock Corp. sensation they felt within their grasp. It was true. The universe was cold and dead and all the best aspects of humanity and its appreciation of the world were stored in electronic boxes.
It was the rare individual who recognized this, though. Diana received thousands of emails, all saying basically the same thing.
It's gone. Something's gone.
These people would cry for days, but a number came out feeling better. Or at least more aware. There was something the human race had been needing to grieve for some time, and most still couldn't name it, but the city clock had forced the tears out.
Diana was right. The company's legacy stopped with her. Neither of her children could build anything new, and so they continued refilling atomizers and churning out more efficient models, but the library of human emotions and experience became static. When Diana died and they needed to miss their mother, they shut themselves away with warning-emblazoned city clocks and wept for all the things they never knew.